Mo'Better Tech

controlroom.jpgLiving and working for years in the Bay Area, I find it pathetic at times to see how many good people latch on to the notion of technology as the great savior to all problems, large or small. While I love technology and surround myself with anything computerized, I also think it's about time to re-examine some core beliefs related to electronic technology.

Over the past few decades, we've gotten accustomed to "Mo'Better Tech" as the only way forward. As a culture, we are conditioned to consume and throw away good, functioning products in favor of the latest "gadget." (I hate the term "gadget" but that's a different story). As result, as we move through life, we leave an endless trail of discarded objects around the globe. But apart from the environmental issues surrounding technology disposal, what is the problem with Mo'Better Tech?

First, there is the illusion that "if it's new, it must be better." Sure. Then along comes Vista or Adobe Illustrator 9. Need I say more?

And then there are the upgrades. Take my word, if it works, never upgrade! At NewDealDesign, there is one hard and fast rule: "Thou shalt not upgrade a computer." If you want to see me really lose it, you stop by when one of my designer-geeks innocently tries to "upgrade" a PC by installing the latest software or upgrading the RAM. It never works! I have yet to see a PC recover from these acts of geeky benevolence.

Geeks love to think that if a piece of code works well, a more elaborate one will work even better. They tend to forget that the last version of software they wrote was just fine and until it really makes sense to make a new one, they should refrain from doing too much. Making a bloated piece of technology is not cool; it's wrong!

Here's one of my favorite examples: In 1990, I got my first copy of Adobe's Photoshop, beta version. It was 426 KB heavy and ran on Mac Plus. I remember having to calculate the file size, the OS size and the application size to see if I could do the work. Despite these limitations, it did 90% of what we do today on Photoshop… And if you think I'm just a Luddite, I should note that at the time, I worked in the development team of Scitex, the company that more or less invented everything we know about colored pixels.

The second fallacy of the Mo'Better Tech ideology is the notion that new features create new products. Among true believers, there's a core belief that every technology should become a product. While there are very few things that Silicon Valley, Japan's technology giants, Israel's booming high-tech industry, and rising Chinese global brands have in common, a central one is a total devotion to features and a consistent disregard for everything else.

theitgeekroom.jpgBe it a raw Israeli technology triumph, a savvy American venture, or an amazingly effective Chinese gadget, the product's managers generally cannot articulate any deeper thoughts or "story" about their device beyond its feature set. Who will buy it? What is the sale cycle? Any ideas about the user's home? Their desires? Aspirations?

The term "value" is seldom understood as the non-monetary sense of desire for their product. An appeal to a common-sense humanity is something rarely demonstrated in meeting rooms. But products must have cultural grounding, demonstrate a true need, and inspire a real lust in order to make it through increasingly difficult barriers. A recognition of the cultural validity of a product is the problem Mo'Better Tech does not get. But that's when a feature-set becomes a true product.

The final problem with Mo'Better Tech is that it simply isn't working any longer. New technology, regardless of its merits, will need to fight harder than ever for the consumer's pocket, mind, and spirit. People whose budgets for discretionary purchases are shrinking, are growing tired of whiz-bang technology that promises more than it can deliver. While feature-fatigue, even among the tech savvy, is already a recognized term, even the purest of enterprises, like the OLPC, have had questionable success, in part due to the questioning of the merits of technology at schools in the Third World. Meanwhile, planned obsolescence of major information appliances is no longer acceptable economically or environmentally.

Instead of producing tech products simply because we can, we now must strive to build really good products with authentic cultural groundings, that have value and last longer. Consumers will pay more for truly better technology. There is no other way. Mo'Better tech has reached its dead end.

Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.

Read more of Gadi Amit's blog: The New Deal

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  • Ethan Smith

    @Gadi Not to be nitpicky, but if 100% of today's designs utilize those upgrades, then we can accomplish exactly 0% using 1990 technology. ;) [line break] But of course I agree that we would have been much better off with 3-4 major upgrades. Adobe is a prime example of over-producing. I spend almost all of my time in one of their products, and over the years have been getting progressively more frustrated by their programs. I mean, it's nice that Illustrator now has tabbed windows (I guess), but how long has the community been screaming for multiple pages? Starting from scratch, they could cut 50% of their bloated code and create a product that was 200% better. [line break] But how do designers lobby a private company to make these kinds of changes? Maybe that's where Mo'Better tech gets in the way of truly better technology.

  • Gadi Amit

    Ethan- I said '90%' right? ;-) Layers are essential and there is much progress... yet I am sure you got my point- we probably needed 3-4 major PH upgrades through the years rather than the 12-15 we had, agree?... Cheers! ;-)

  • Ethan Smith

    And my comment was stripped of its line breaks, making it impossible to read. Maybe this is a real world example where Mo'Better tech would help this page quite a bit.

  • Ethan Smith

    Now, I have the same amount of experience with Photoshop and am as frustrated as anybody by the ridiculous bloat for which Adobe is responsible in their entire suite (let's not even start on Illustrator), but it's more than a little disingenuous to claim that in 1990, we could accomplish "90% of what we do today on Photoshop."

    I remember the days before layers. Every project was a single click away from ruin at all times. And editable type wasn't introduced until, what, 1997? 100% of today's design absolutely requires those two upgrades.

    While I agree that over-indulging in needless upgrades is harmful to the design process, there are some upgrades that are absolutely essential to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

    To claim that Mo'Better tech has reached a "dead end" is to completely ignore the advances that have made (or will make) me a dramatically better (and more efficient) designer. Whether it's my tablet (and its sensitivity) or the hope of an OLED monitor (or better yet, advanced digital paper) which will correctly display color without the need to print a sample, Mo'Better tech is alive and kicking. And I look forward to what's next.

  • Bill Bott

    Gadi - I can't agree more - Having worked with State Government for over a decade, I have seen my share of people put too much faith in technology solutions. We invest tax money and time into automating really bad systems and wonder why we only get 5% improvement after we hoped for huge ROI. Great article that I will be circulating to my peers in public sector IT!